The Origins of “Lowbrow” in Art

Russell Lynes : Editor at Harper’s Magazine

Back in January, I promised to author a series of critical writings intended to further the understanding of modern painting while paying tribute to the art establishment. Staying true to my Manifesto, I dove into art history’s past through a series of books, manuscripts and published articles looking for the true author of “lowbrow.”

Russell Lynes : Cultural Taste Chart : Harper’s Magazine : 1949

Recently, I stumbled upon Russell Lynes (12-2-1910—9-14-1991), an influential American art historian, photographer and managing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Russell wrote a groundbreaking article in 1949 featured in the February issue of Harper’s, “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow.” Russell’s point was that people’s tastes could no longer be explained by their “wealth or education, by breeding or background,” but that a new social stratification was growing, in which “the highbrows are the elite, the middlebrows are the bourgeoisie and the lowbrows are hoi polloi.”** Here is a brief excerpt:

“The highbrows would like, of course, to eliminate the middlebrows and devise a society that would approximate an intellectual feudal system in which the lowbrows do the work and create folk arts, and the highbrows do the thinking and create fine arts. All middlebrows, presumably, would have their radios taken away, be suspended from society until they had agreed to give up their subscriptions to the Book-of-the-Month, turned their color reproductions over to a Commission for the Dissolution of Middlebrow Taste, and renounced their affiliation with all educational and other cultural institutions whatsoever. They would be taxed for the support of all writers, artists, musicians, critics, and critics-of-criticism whose production could be certified “serious”…”

Russell Lynes chart featured in LIFE : 1949

Russell Lynes article was soon the toast of the town and it created fervor for more dialogue immediately grabbing the attention of Maitland Edey, one of “LIFE” magazine’s editors. Mr. Edey requested Russell to create a taste chart for “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” and feature it within the next issue of “LIFE.”

Furthering my research of the origins of “lowbrow,” I stumbled upon an amazing website, HiLoBrow, which pointed me to the English novelist, essayist, publisher and short story author Virginia Woolf (1-25-1882—3-28-1941). Virginia Woolf is thought to have coined the original phrases highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow in an unsent letter to the editor of the “New Statesman.” Virginia writes in 1932:

“…Now there can be no two opinions as to what a highbrow is. He is the man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea. That is why I have always been so proud to be called highbrow…”

“…By a lowbrow is meant of course a man or a woman of thoroughbred vitality who rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life. That is why I honour and respect lowbrows…”

Steinberg : Harper’s Magazine and Robert Williams : Zap Comix

HiLoBrow has many amazing well-written articles and a great collection of modern lexicons recorded throughout history. My new discoveries introduced questions about my previous notions about Robert Williams (March 2, 1943) receiving credit for coining the phrase “lowbrow.” Mr. Williams states in the “about” section of his website, “It was this artist who brought the term, ‘lowbrow’ into the fine arts lexicon, with his ground breaking 1979 book, The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams. It was from this point that the seminal elements of West Coast Outlaw culture slowly started to aggregate.”

Russell Lynes authored “Snobs” in 1950

After all of my research was complete, I believe it was Russell Lynes who originated “lowbrow” when he authored his satire about the shift of American culture and its’ taste in the arts. It was Robert Williams who painted the essence of Mr. Lynes’ notions celebrated in the original chart created for “Life” magazine presented in comic book fashion. To me, this is further attributed to Russell Lynes’ article “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow.” And since I can not prove if Mr. Williams analyzed the original comic, (as he would have been nearly 6 years old), it is complimentary that he worked with R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Rick Griffin and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth who further influenced his “lowbrow” state-of-mind.

Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and S. Clay Wilson

In closing, a fitting quote written by Russell Lynes, “Camouflage is a game we all like to play, but our secrets are as surely revealed by what we want to seem to be as by what we want to conceal.”

**(Bourgeoisie, meaning social class characterized by ownership of capital and their related culture. Hoi polloi, meaning many or the majority and at that time people were more familiar with Greek and Latin often considered a characteristic for well educated).

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